BARCELONA, Spain — A Spanish judge on Thursday withdrew a European arrest warrant against Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia, a week after a German court ruled he could only be extradited for fraud, rather than the more serious charge of rebellion sought by Spain.
The decision is the latest twist in a complicated legal dispute that gained an international dimension last October when Mr. Puigdemont fled to avoid prosecution in Spain after a botched attempt to declare Catalonia’s independence. He left shortly after the central government in Madrid ousted him and placed Catalonia under direct rule, and he has been trying to avoid extradition ever since.
In March, while traveling by car from Finland to Belgium, Mr. Puigdemont was arrested by the German police on an arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge.
On Thursday, Pablo Llarena, the judge on Spain’s Supreme Court in charge of the case against the Catalan separatists, also withdrew the arrest warrants he had issued against five other Catalan politicians who fled Spain to Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland.
Last week, a German regional court ruled that Mr. Puigdemont could be sent back to Spain, but only to face the charge of misusing public funds ahead of an independence referendum that Mr. Puigdemont organized last Oct. 1 in defiance of the Spanish government and courts. The German court did not find sufficient evidence of violence to extradite Mr. Puigdemont for rebellion.
If found guilty of rebellion, Mr. Puigdemont could have been sentenced to as long as 30 years in prison.
The decision to leave Mr. Puigdemont free complicates the Supreme Court’s attempt to try a total of 25 Catalan separatists for leading their region toward secession last year. Some of the 25 are being held in prison in Catalonia as they await their trial.
Germany’s recent ruling left Judge Llarena facing a conundrum: By bringing back Mr. Puigdemont on just a fraud charge, Spain’s judiciary risked sentencing Catalonia’s top leader for a lesser crime than other separatist politicians who never attempted to avoid prosecution in Spain.
If convicted of fraud, Mr. Puigdemont could still have ended up in prison, although any sentence of two years or less is normally suspended in Spain for first-time offenders.
Mr. Puigdemont and other separatists welcomed the end of Spain’s extradition efforts. While calling for other jailed Catalan politicians to be released, Mr. Puigdemont said Thursday’s decision demonstrated “the immense weakness” of Spain’s legal case.
When Mr. Puigdemont left Spain last October, he said his goal was to internationalize Spain’s territorial conflict and bring Catalonia into “the institutional heart of Europe.”
But his belief that he could rally European politicians foundered. Instead, the leaders of the European Union closed ranks around the Spanish government in condemning Mr. Puigdemont and his fellow separatists for threatening Spain’s constitutional and territorial stability.
Still, Madrid’s thwarted pursuit of Mr. Puigdemont has stoked broader concerns about judicial cooperation and the rule of law within the European Union.
A Spanish lawmaker, Pablo Casado, who is seeking to become the leader of the conservative Popular Party, recently called for Spain to withdraw from the European open-border area known as the Schengen agreement because of Germany’s failure to hand over Mr. Puigdemont.
Mr. Puigdemont’s fate has been a political hot potato in Spain at a time of major political change. A Socialist government took office in Madrid in June, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. In Barcelona, a new regional government also took office last month, formed by a fragile coalition of separatists led by Quim Torra as a replacement for Mr. Puigdemont.
Mr. Torra recently met with Mr. Sánchez to discuss the prime minister’s offer of returning to political negotiations to resolve the Catalonia conflict. Both men described their meeting as positive, but neither offered any significant concession. Even after last October’s failed declaration of independence, Mr. Torra is under pressure to stick to a separatist agenda — or call another regional election later this year.
Spain’s handling of the case is creating tensions within its judiciary, with an association of Catalan judges, the Àgora Judicial, condemning Judge Llarena in a statement on Thursday for his handling of Mr. Puigdemont’s extradition case.
“The external image of the Spanish judiciary cannot afford this kind of actions,” the association said.